Đà Lạt – Vietnam’s European Connection
Cannot say enough wonderful things about this city. As soon as we entered, I started getting flashbacks of various European cities that I’ve visited in the past. The Xuan Huong Lake, for instance, instantly reminded me of Geneva, and the hill rising up above it, dotted with colorful buildings, resembled Chamonix. It was very picturesque, more than I’ve seen in any other Vietnamese town. You could definitely tell that it was initially set up as a resort by the French back in early 1900s. It was a beautiful sight to top off our ride from Mũi Né. It felt like the polar opposite of our ride from Saigon, which got off to a rocky start. A litte extra experience goes a long way!
The Ride Into Đà Lạt
So many things catch your eye while traveling through a foreign land and only on a motorbike can you choose which ones you stop and look at. The Chùa Bình Nhơn Hindu temple was something we had to check out on our ride to Dalat. #temple #motorbike #Hindu #muine #Dalat #explore #travel #vietnam #stopandsmelltheroses #wanderlust
Heading into Đà Lạt, we started off with an extremely early morning as we attempted to see the sunrise on the Mũi Né white sand dunes. It was beautiful to ride just as the first light was coming in. We could see the sky changing colors as we went, and the visit to the sand dunes just as the sun started poking above the horizon made for the best morning I’ve had on my trip so far. That is not a light statement. After the dunes, we set out in full, stellar sunlight (wearing our protective hoodies), but we didn’t get far as we were quickly distracted by a rather impressive Hindu statue on the way.
One of the benefits of motorbikes is you can stop whenever you want, and this was something we decided was worth the break, especially since it was still so early in the day. We parked our bikes outside and explored the grounds. It happened to be the Chùa Bình Nhơn Hindu temple, which was being restored. People were working inside but nobody seemed to mind our presence. We took a few pictures and continued on, not wanting to overstay our welcome.
As the road carried on, it entered the mountains. The views were spectacular and I felt like I could have carried on forever. This ride made me realize how much different a road trip is in a bike over a car. Being on the bike immerses you into the environment, and I believe Robert M. Pirsig said it best in “Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance”:
In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.
-Robert M. Pirsig
We stopped at one of the better looking huts on the way looking for a smoothy but, as always, had to settle for a coffee.
They did have a great fruit stand though and we feasted on some sweet pineapple for a little sugar boost. The crew there were in such good spirits, as I’ve seen from many Vietnamese people, so welcoming everywhere you go. They loved having us in their little restaurant and, once we finished our drinks, asked us to sit with them for another. Conversation wasn’t smooth but nothing Google Translate couldn’t assist with. After a lot of laughs, we carried on.
No ride is perfect and a little disaster struck soon after. Arjun saw a very nice little lake with a bridge going over it and rightfully asked to stop and check it out. I headed down first along the steep dirt road leading to it and all of a sudden, heard a crash behind me. My motorbike had no problem with the dirt hill but Arjun’s scooter was not up to the task. It toppled over at the top and a little stream of oil was visibly pouring from it. We hoisted it back up and, with brute force hauled it back up the hill. Once upright, it stopped leaking and we prayed that was good enough for now as we gingerly drove it to the nearest mechanic.
Despite the unexpected pit stop, it wasn’t a waste of time. I was due for an oil change too and my front tire was looking pretty flat. My back suspension also needed changing but he either didn’t have the parts or didn’t understand what I was saying, so that one had to wait. Even so, he tightened up Arjun’s leak, changed both our oils, and we headed back out.
From there, the road carried us up the mountains, and the once gorgeous, warm, sunlight scenery retained it’s beauty but quickly turned cold at those altitudes. Reminded us how varied Vietnam’s climate can be. Fortunately, we were both already wearing hoodies for sun protection and had no problem with the dropping temperatures. We enjoyed the views until we saw Đà Lạt and the welcoming lake.
The Đà Lạt Family Hostel, Stay There!
We were told by the friends we met on the Mũi Né sand dunes that the Đà Lạt Family Hostel is the way to go. One thing I’ve learned on this trip is that word of mouth is the most valuable type of recommendation you can receive, especially when coming from people in the same mindset as you, aka fellow backpackers. It was a little hard to find, down a narrow steep road, but it was definitely worth the search. We didn’t have a reservation, as is often the case while backpacking, but we took our chances and showed up anyway. They greeted us warmly and found a place for us.
As soon as we walked in, we were greeted by the host: “Crazy Momma”. We were told she was friendly but this was something else. She welcomed us, hugged us, fed us, and probably would have cleaned us if we asked. She asked if we were hungry and we hardly had time to reply before she sat us down, rubbed our bellies and put some food down in front of us, free of charge.
She cooked a massive family style dinner for everyone in the hostel every day at 5pm, for which she charged a measly 50 Dong. She literally stuffed you silly, like a real momma. Oh, and don’t be fooled by her motherly charm, she can put back a few drinks with you too.
Not only was the feast delicious, but you get to meet everyone in the hostel during that dinner. It’s these kinds of places that can really change your trip in a very positive way. Not only because of the amazing experience they provide but for what they leave you with: we met so many fellow travelers going in the same direction as us that we carried on with, as well as others coming from the opposite direction that provided us with great recommendations.
If you go to Dalat, stay at the Dalat Family Hostel. That is not an option!
We arrived rather early on that first day so we decided to check out one of Đà Lạt’s main attractions: the Crazy House, officially known as the Hằng Nga Guesthouse. Yes, it is a guesthouse and you can stay there, and if you have time it might be an interesting experiment. It is a very unconventional house, designed to resemble living in various natural environments, meant to bring awareness to the climate change issues that the architect was concerned with.
It has staircases going in every which direction, connecting the motley of scrambled rooms together. It also towers pretty high up and gives you a great view of Đà Lạt. I’m not sure what it would be like staying in a tourist attraction, with people walking around your hallways all the time, but that in and of itself might be an experience. The house is not all complete yet, giving some rooms an eerie Frankenstein like feeling as you see their inner workings still being molded together.
The next day, we headed on the craziest adventure I’ve had so far on the trip: Extreme Canyoning, which we were able to sign up for right from our hostel. We were later told by other backpackers that other companies are cheaper and offer wet suits so it might have been better to shop around a little online or in some local travel agencies, but the adventure was worth the cost. The wet suits would have been useful however, as the whole idea involves rock climbing or jumping down some very steep cliffs, and eventually dropping into various pools of water. Depending on the season, you’ll get varying degrees of warmth. Ours was an overcast day and after our first drop in the water, we were never warm again. Nevertheless, you barely had time to think about it. It was so much fun and a great way to see Vietnam’s lush green mountains.
There were 5 different descents you went through, each taking turns doing it one at a time.
100 Roofs Cafe – Crazy House with a Bar
That night, after we cleaned ourselves up, warmed up with a good shower, and let Momma feed us, we headed out to the 100 Roofs Cafe. It looked like a bar version of the Crazy House we visited on our first day. It was an insane maze leading you to many rooms, each with it’s own outrageous decor, some so small two people would have to really snuggle to fit, others wide enough for a dance party. Drinks were only available at the entrance so make sure you double yield before you get lost and are left out to dry.
Exploring that maze felt like an adventure in itself. One could get lost and find their friends again, get separated and meet new people, or stumble into rooms they didn’t know existed. I can’t imagine the bizarre, creative mind that came up with this, but they did a great job.
Also a Great Place to Chill
After such an action packed day of canyoning and losing ourselves in the various rooms in the 100 Roof House, we spent our last day in Đà Lạt relaxing in the city. Remember, it was built as a resort and maintains much of that feel. We went to the Thanh Thuy Blue Water Restaurant by the lake, which looks like a landmark in the city as it’s visible from almost everywhere and offers great views of the lake. We assumed it’s central, lakeside location would make it like one of those “Western Priced” restaurants, but we had to give it a shot and it turned out to be very reasonable. We only sat down for a coffee and desert, and comfortably caught up on some work.
For lunch, we found a fantastic bakery further up the hills called the Liên Hoa Bakery, again demonstrating the strong French influence still left over in this city. They had great croissants and other pastries, and upstrairs was a great restaurant for lunch with Vietnamese, as well as French food. As everywhere in Vietnam, their soups were amazing, but these resembled more like stews rather than Pho, and came with a baguette for dipping. Needless to say, I wiped that plate clean.
At some point during our stay, we also got a tip that Đà Lạt is also famous for it’s wine, so we stopped by a shop to pick some up and bought it home for that evening dinner. We checked out a few more coffee shops and drove around, enjoying the sights. Come 5pm, we headed back. Missing Momma’s dinner was not an option.